Review: Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, Sydney Opera House (NSW)

I have never heard the Sydney Opera House organ sounding better.

Susan Graham with conductor David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Vienna Fornolles.

More swathes of gratuitously easy-listening repertoire continued the SSO’s Emirates Metro Series on Thursday evening with Chabrier’s quaintly exotic España Rhapsody, an antique and faded postcard from a Spanish vacation; seven selected songs from Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne (1923-30), set in the local Occitan language, and finally the popular Organ Symphony, No 3 by Camille Saint-Saëns, Op. 78 (1886), a work we have all heard many, many times.

Lawyer-turned-composer Emmanuel Chabrier fancifully imagined the reaction to his Spanish score as follows: ‘My rhythms, my tunes, will arouse the audience to a feverish pitch of excitement; everyone will embrace his neighbour madly!’ If this did not literally occur on Thursday night, there was certainly a sense of excitement in the hall following a witty, articulated and ebullient performance.

Texan mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was the soloist for the selections from Canteloube’s famous five part song cycle, Chants d’Auvergne. Although hers was a rich and lovely creamy voice, I found it difficult to distinguish a single word she was singing. Dressed in rich emerald with ruby floral embroidery and enhanced with expressive dramatic gestures throughout, her performance was an overall success, embracing all of the expansive pastoral lyricism of the score. The voice was never forced and often achieved a delightfully soft and gentle loveliness.

It is important to remember that Saint-Saëns’s ‘Organ Symphony’ is not a concerto. For much of the work, the organ subtly enhances the rich and subtle sonority of the orchestration with some blatant and raucous statements declared towards the end. There is glorious melodic writing along the way, beautifully articulated by the orchestra’s impeccably in-tune wind section and most powerfully expressed and led by oboist Diana Doherty. The organ ‘soloist’ was Joseph Nolan, master of music of St George’s Cathedral, Perth. Nolan has an unequivocally refined ear and sensitivity to French repertoire and the characteristics and intricacies of its quite specific instruments. He continues to make excellent recordings on these organs in France. I have never heard the Sydney Opera House organ sounding better. There was a pervading excitement to the performance that all felt in the Concert Hall. Technically, the performance was faultless, only a pity that the SSO did not provide a page turner to assist with some tricky episodes.  

But I must return to my original gripe: soaking in a warm bath for two hours of Romantic melodic lyricism was tiresome and draining. Where was the texture and substance of this program? Could there not have been something more challenging? How much more satisfying would have been Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6, admittedly with a larger orchestra in place of the Canteloube? The program could hardly have been more cloying; a sweet, pink blancmange.

3.5 stars out of 5 ★★★☆

Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony
SSO Emirates Metro Series
19 July 2019
Sydney Opera House
Tickets $49-$155

David Barmby
About the Author
David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, director of music at St James' Anglican Church, King Street, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.